For Immediate Release: October 1, 2010
Washington, DC – As a group of representatives from governments, civil society and academia meet in Geneva today to participate in a Roundtable discussion on how to better protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees, Human Rights First urges the UN refugee agency – UNHCR – to continue to undertake concrete steps to ensure LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers are protected on the basis of equality and dignity.
“Every day, refugees from all corners of the world are forced to flee their homes on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Human Rights First’s Jesse Bernstein, author of Persistent Needs and Gaps: the Protection of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Refugees, a report that will be presented today at UNHCR’s Roundtable in Geneva. “By definition, all refugees are vulnerable,” said Bernstein. “Yet LGBTI refugees often face particular challenges in accessing protection and assistance resulting in needs which frequently go unaddressed.”
LGBTI individuals who flee their homes often have no choice but to flee to neighboring countries where homophobia is as pervasive as the environments they are seeking to escape. More than 70 countries have laws that criminalize same-sex conduct, and many of these countries host refugees. LGBTI refugees often endure discrimination as they navigate asylum systems, including many that require them to register with national authorities who may harbor homophobic attitudes or consider consensual same-sex conduct a crime. As a result, LGBTI refugees fear registering with authorities, a reality that limits their ability to access assistance programs or be identified for the purposes of protection and potential resettlement. In a number of contexts, such as Iraq and east Africa, LGBTI refugees also experience sexual violence as a cause of flight or while in countries of first asylum.
Human Rights First welcomes UNHCR’s Roundtable as an important step in developing the response of the international community to better protect LGBTI refugees. It marks the first time the protection concerns of LGBTI refugees will be formally discussed under UN auspices with experts from governments, civil society and academia. At the same time, however, additional action is necessary to ensure the protection of LGBTI refugees in real terms. For example, as Human Rights First’s analysis details, the primary tools used by UNHCR to identify at risk individuals and the specific needs within refugee populations contain only limited reference to sexual orientation or gender identity. This limits the ability of UNHCR staff to identify and respond to the protection needs of LGBTI refugees, such as a potential need for resettlement or protection from sexual violence.
“UNHCR should move forward with measures to improve protection for LGBTI refugees, including through revising relevant policies, developing practical guidance that details steps local staff can take to ensure the protection of LGBTI refugees, and ensuring support for implementation. UNHCR’s donor States should provide support as UNHCR undertakes these reforms,” Bernstein concluded.